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Robert Morrison grew up in an austere Scottish Presbyterian home, where he became a Christian as a teenager. After his conversion, he sought to honor God by pursuing a career as a missionary. He studied at Hoxton Academy, North London (1803), and at the Gosport Training Academy (1804), where David Bogue, one of the founders of the London Missionary Society (LMS), was principal. At the Gosport Training Academy, Morrison learning a three-pronged approach to missions: learn the language, translate the Scriptures, and establish a seminary, in that order. The LMS appointed Morrison as a missionary in 1805, and he then studied medicine, astronomy, and Chinese in London. Following his ordination in 1807, Morrison continued studying the language on board the ship that carried him to Canton (Guangzhou), where he also engaged in religious conversations with the sailors, attempting to convert them. Although he mostly failed in these efforts, he found that lending out his books and tracts afforded him the best response from his fellow passengers.
Morrison arrived in Macao on September 4, 1807. He found it difficult to find anyone willing to tutor him in Chinese, however, since the Chinese government had forbidden their people from teaching the language to any foreigners. He asked George Staunton, an official of the East India Company, for assistance, and Staunton helped Morrison connect with a Chinese convert to Roman Catholicism, who became Morrison’s language instructor. With the aid of this tutor, along with another Chinese Christian teacher, Morrison gradually acquired fluency in Chinese.
On February 20, 1809, Morrison married a woman named Mary Morton. The same day, he also accepted the position of “The Office of Chinese Translator to the English Factory at Canton” with the East India Company. He struggled with his decision to work for the politically aggressive East India Company, but he needed the salary, and the job secured his legal residence in Canton. Morrison decided that the positives of accepting the position outweighed the negatives, as his duties would improve his language skills and the salary would benefit his mission. Throughout the rest of his time in China, however, Morrison wrestled with the reality that his work robbed him of time he could otherwise spend translating Scriptures. Although he thought his decision was for the best, it was not without much reluctance that he accepted this position. It also required that he spend about half of the year in Canton, while his new wife remained in Macao. This situation was extremely hard both on Mary and on Morrison.
Lacking the time he desired to work on translation, Morrison employed the help of his two language tutors to begin the work of translating the Scriptures into Chinese. He started his translations with the Bible, followed by a Chinese dictionary and grammar, and then commentaries and explanations of Scriptures. As the pioneer in Chinese translation work, Morrison earned a Doctor of Divinity degree from Aberdeen University in 1817, a Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1825, and international acclaim. Morrison also served as advisor to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and respected unofficial ambassador of all things Chinese in Britain.
The translation process was complex, however, and Morrison made slow progress. In time, he became concerned that he would not be able to complete the third step of Bogue’s mission strategy (founding a seminary) because the translations were taking so long. He asked the LMS for aid in his assignment. In response, the LMS deployed another missionary to Morrison’s aid: William Milne. Milne was charged with assisting Morrison in his translations and establishing a seminary. With Milne’s help, Morrison was able to finish his translation of the Bible, his composition of the Chinese-English dictionary, and his Chinese grammar. Milne also translated Bogue’s lecture notes for use in the seminary.
After assisting Morrison with this work, Milne began to search for a suitable location for establishing the school. He selected Malacca as their base and began the work of constructing an academy there. The LMS sent another missionary, Walter Medhurst, to Malacca to assist Milne in his printing work. Milne did not see eye-to-eye with this new missionary, however. Consequently, Morrison and Milne established a committee and drew up a series of resolutions to assert their administrative power over the operations in Malacca. This action became a source of controversy between Morrison and the LMS, who believed Morrison’s approach to religious education at the Anglo-Chinese College was too liberal. Eventually, this disagreement caused the LMS virtually to abandon Morrison.
In 1818, the first stone was laid for the foundation of the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca. The college opened its doors in 1820, and Milne taught his students using translations of Bogue’s lecture notes. Seventeen people completed the program before Milne died in 1822. Morrison was deeply grieved by the death of Milne and took over the responsibility for the college in 1823, spending time in Malacca giving lectures to the students and expanding the school’s library with more translations. Thankfully, the College continued strongly, despite the death of Milne.
Adding to Morrison’s despair, his wife, Mary, had recently died. Mary had struggled with her health throughout her time in China. Early in 1810, she had given birth to a son, John, but he died at birth. A healthy daughter was born 1812, and then a healthy son in 1814. Her pregnancies only exacerbated her own health struggles, however. Her continuing illnesses finally drove her back to Britain in 1815, while her husband remained in China. Mary’s health had improved enough by 1820 that she returned to China, and she was soon pregnant with another child. In June of 1821, however, Mary became critically ill; on June 10th, she and her unborn baby passed away. Morrison was distraught and kept his children with him for a time, sharing his grief with them. At the beginning of 1822, however, Morrison’s children returned to England.
In 1823, Morrison finally took a long-awaited furlough home to Britain. While he was there, he wanted to arouse interest and zeal for China. His purpose was twofold: to gather support for the Anglo-Chinese College, and to inspire more missionaries to serve in China. Morrison also visited family, was granted an audience with King George IV, and attended Missionary Society meetings. He remained in Britain until 1826, and during that time, he met and married Eliza Armstrong.
When Morrison returned to China, his family remained in Macao while he continued on to Canton. During his long separation from Eliza, he wrote to her almost daily. Although he found his solitude quite difficult, Morrison declared, “He (the missionary) should endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. To complain of difficulties inseparably connected with the work, is unworthy of him.” (Hancock, 197)
We cannot fully understand Morrison’s career without considering his character. As Christopher Hancock states, “His capacity to endure and consistency of vision are remarkable.” And: “For all his bullish single-mindedness and (to some) priggish self-righteousness, Morrison had a remarkable capacity to love and be loved.” As might be expected, in the end, “Morrison’s will often outran his body... He was always better at exhausting himself than resting well.” Morrison was a man who was deeply devoted to his family, his mission, and his Lord.
Morrison’s later years were spent training several locals in operating the printing press and composing evangelical texts. By preparing local converts to carry on Bogue’s mission strategy after he was gone, Morrison successfully completed all that Bogue had assigned him to do. The mission would not end with the departure or death of Morrison. The converts would carry on, founding new mission centers, distributing texts, continuing translations, and educating other local converts, “thus extending the circle wider and wider from year to year.” (Daily, 190)
Despite losing the support of the LMS and the isolation that followed, Morrison was successful in his mission. By the time he died in 1834, China possessed a Chinese Bible; a grammar of the Chinese language; translations of the Book of Common Prayer and other Christian texts; several monographs and many shorter works on Chinese history, culture, literature, etc., along with translations of Chinese literary works; a history of Christian missions among the Chinese; a vocabulary of the Cantonese dialect; several dozen other works in English and Chinese; and a handful of converts dedicated to spreading Christianity. Over his twenty-seven years in China, Morrison laid the groundwork for others to follow.
Morrison indeed established the foundation for future missionaries in China. When he arrived, China was hostile to missionaries, and Morrison had an uphill battle to fight. Over time, as he toiled away, he prepared the soil of China for future missionaries to come and share the gospel. Through his translations of Scriptures and other religious tracts, he spread the Good News farther than he would physically have been able to reach. And by founding a seminary in Malacca, he was able to train up native Christians who could continue his work.